The influence of Hume's criterion of truth on some aspects of his philosophy
Bowler, Thomas Downing
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Hume recognized only that which is certain as knowledge. He regarded only that which is known through intuition and deduction as certain. He found, however, that through the processes of the deductive xoiences are exact, the human faculties which used them are fallible. Therefore, the human understanding can not attain certain knowledge. The deductive sciences deal only with the necessary relation to matters of fact. Probable reasoning is the only other source to which the human understanding might turn. For Hume, the product of probable reasoning was never more than opinion and should not be called knowledge. The weakness of probable reason is due to its dependence upon custom and imagination. Such dependence is necessary because of the limitations of Hume's definition of reason. Reason is limited to comparison and discovery of the relations of ideas. Thus, Hume conceived that the habitual or customary relations learned from experience by the memory were the only sources of matter of fact relations. If the understanding required an inference which went beyond the objects and relations given, Hume thought it necessary for the imagination to draw the inference. Therefore, Hume could not see how probable reasoning could ever give rise to any dependable system of philosophy. Hume recognized, however, that in spite of his skeptical conclusions all men, even the skeptic, go right on living. It is necessary, in the face of this, to find what it is that causes man to continue acting upon and reacting to his environment. Man can never be certain but he lives as though he were. Hume found the answer in the sensitive nature and propensity to believe. It is not left to the individual to decide whether he will believe in the existence of the universe which he experiences. He may, for a brief period, concentrate on philosophical pursuits and become skeptical in his attitude toward life, but he will soon relax and other interests will draw him back to live in accordance with his inborn nature. Fron all this Hume concluded that the reason played a secondary role and is the handmaid of the sensitive nature. It is the sensitive nature which actually determines the activities and attitudes of the individual. Belief is a matter of the force of ideas. This force is transferred from impressions to the ideas which through custom are associated with them. Passions react mechanically to objects of impressions. The will is motivated by the passions. The reason is inert and operates under the same necessity as nature so that can never be the cause of any activity. Any inference to that which has never been experienced is impossible and consequently there can be no metaphysical knowledge. Morality is based on a moral sense which reacts in terms of an altruistic hedonism. At every point, however, the same objection may be raised. Hume recognized certain knowledge as valid but he failed to see that it was the mind's demand for coherence among its ideas that made such a knowledge valid and necessary. Failing of this he did not see that reliable knowledge could be derived by applying coherence to the empirical world. It was granted that Hume was correct in insisting that certain knowledge of matters of fact is impossible. Further, it was granted that logical coherence is not applicable to knowledge of matters of fact. However, it was maintained that logical coherence is dependent upon the mind's demand for consistency and systematic interrelatedness among its ideas and that this demand of the mind may be satisfied in a similar way concerning matters of fact by empirical coherence. The knowledge would not be necessary nor would the relations follow by necessary implication but the pattern would be the same. It was claimed that the individual does actually order his knowledge of matter of fact in terms of a pattern of coherence in every area whether logical or empirical, necessary or probable. Finally, it has been claimed that because of Hume's failure to recognize the validity of knowledge based on empirical coherence, he has failed to develop the inductive and inferential activity of the mind. He has left impressions unanalyzed when they must be explained in term of the mind's inference and judgement based on induction and empirical coherence. He has explained the nature of belief in terms of feeling rather than seeing it as a commitment of the mind in terms of judgement of the coherent relations of a new datum to one's apperceptive mass. He has emphasized the influence of passions in the motivation of the will and denied the control of the will to reason instead of observing that the passion and the will are dependent on reason for the environment in which they react. Finally, he has found no way for man to attain metaphysical knowledge. Instead of developing the possibility of extending the lines established in the pattern of empirical coherence to explain that of which may not have the empirical knowledge, he settled for unknown causes. It may be pointed out that Hume gave to the world of philosophy some keen and valuable insights but theses insights do not necessitate skepticism. On the contrary, if Hume's critical approach to human knowledge is understood in terms of a broader criterion of trut, or the possibility of reliable knowledge based on empirical coherence, which is more consistent with man and his universe, then one may well adopt Hume's method and not be driven to skepticism.
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University, 1950